Right On Track: 5 Innovative Trends that Showcase the Future of Rail

Leona Frank Leona Frank March 10, 2019

6 min read

Rail has come a long way since James Watt introduced a method of transforming steam power into a circular motion back in 1763. With the invention of steam engines and a growing network of railroad tracks, the railway industry quickly became an economic boon throughout the world, moving goods and people on a mass scale. It only seemed to lose steam once trucks and airplanes entered the scene.

Rail Sector on the Rise Again

But just like the little engine that could, the railway industry today is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Worldwide rail freight traffic is growing steadily, with the U.S. rising by 5.3%, the E.U. up 3.5% and Russia by 6.4%, according to the OECD. The world’s railway networks cover more than 1.3 million route-kilometers and are expected to grow to about 1.38 million by 2020. The projected market volume of railway technology between 2021 and 2023 in Western Europe, the largest rail market in the world, is expected to be worth 43 billion Euros during this time period.

Even in the U.S., where rail travel is less common, the rail transportation sector contributed just under US $45.5 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product in 2017.

Smart Solutions for the Modern Rail Sector

With this kind of projected growth, economies will need to find the most cost effective ways to grow with the industry and address pressing needs such as maintenance and upgrades to rail infrastructure. Thankfully, today’s technology can help gain efficiencies with the use of big data and analytics as well as Building Information Modelling (BIM) software to assist with design and project management.

Each year, Autodesk facilitates discussions on the latest trends, growth projections and modelling software at their annual Rail Summit, which brings together industry leaders from around the world. Last year’s summit took place in Paris and showcased many of the world’s largest projects and state-of-the art processes, shedding light on these 5 important and innovative trends for the rail sector:

1) High-Speed Rail: Sustainable, Clean and Speedy Transport

Population growth and urban density is the catalyst for innovation in high-speed rail. The world population today stands around 7.6 billion and is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2037. Fast, inexpensive and efficient transportation will be vital to meeting those population growth demands.

Enter high-speed rail, a cleaner, more efficient and more pleasant means of transportation for passengers. It’s a trend worth following, and software such as Autodesk Civil 3D and Autodesk Revit are often used by infrastructure and engineering firms to automate workflow and make processes as streamlined as possible:

The Virgin Hyperloop One in France is hoping to meet booming population demands. As envisioned by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, Hyperloop would become the fifth mode of transport after ships, trains, cars, and aircraft. Hyperloop is a steel tube on top of pylons; the vacuum inside the tube reduces drag. The magnetic levitation technology elevates objects using magnetic fields only and nearly zero friction, allowing a pod carrying passengers and freight to travel at a speed of up to 1,220 km/h. A trip from Paris to Amsterdam would take 20 minutes. Or a trip from Charles de Gaulle Airport to downtown Paris could take five minutes. That means it is not only faster than air travel and cheaper than train trips, but also independent from weather conditions, and producing zero emissions – a certain requirement in the future.



2) Virtual Reality: Hands-on Experiences for Users

While vision and plans are the beginning points to greater rail travel projects, design and practical modelling are key to understanding how the systems will work in an everyday hands-on sense.

When it came to their new high-speed rail project, the Association for California High-Speed Trains partnered with Project Buccaneer – a group of engineering, transportation and technology professionals – to create a virtual reality experience that would show Californians how it would work and impact their lives. This “California Experience” uses InfraWorks, 3Ds and ReCap Pro to give stakeholders and potential commuters the ability to feel as if they are getting off and on the train and walking among California landmarks. Stakeholders and government partners can use the visualization to better understand where money is spent. VR modelling can be used as a training tool and hands-on experiences can be realized – all before a single shovel hits the ground or too much expense is incurred.

These same benefits are transferred to architects and designers who can alter designs or plans based on community and stakeholder feedback without expensive modelling, and in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take.


3) Mobility Simulation: Understanding How People Move

Every project in the infrastructure or transportation sector could benefit from mobility simulation. As important as efficient and cost-effective designs are, even if a VR component allows people to “experience” the system, mobility simulation or SIM can help governments and partners better understand commuter flows, person-hours traveled, economic and environmental benefits of urban mobility improvements, and help with the calculation of multi-modal levels of service.

For example, using an InfraWorks Mobility SIM model at the San Andreas Airport, Autodesk was able to look at, and incorporate into their overall engineering plans, data such as airport traffic, arrivals, how shared space is used, and incorporate all of that into a multi-modal mobility design.

4) BIM and Collaboration: Working Together on Complex Projects

BIM is changing the way architects, engineers and contractors work together – across borders and on multiple projects. BIM uses 3D modelling allowing coordinated models to be worked on at the same time by a variety of parties. Tools such as BIM360, InfraWorks, Civil 3D and Revit, along with other collected project data, helps describe the relationships between model components, allowing for changes to be updated before anything is even built. With regard to the railway industry, BIM gives rail sponsors (and/or government stakeholders) predictability over costs, fewer errors, better maintenance options and facilities’ management. Overall risk is reduced and better outcomes are achieved.

In Germany, for example, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure is running pilot projects using BIM and testing it for use on all future projects. Deutsche Bahn is refurbishing a 180-kilometer rail line from Karlsruhe, Germany to Basel, Switzerland. It is using BIM to make comparative studies on designs that were already in place. Tools like 4D and 5D BIM can help with scheduling, one of the major problems the DB has when building or re-furbishing their busy rail lines.

Governments and infrastructure owners seek out BIM because of its ease of use and superior handover information capabilities. They also appreciate its efficiency and BIM’s ability to include multiple architects, engineers and contractors on the same project.

Bonus: Autodesk is also leading the way on Open Rail BIM Standards – a way of promoting quality, consistency and connectivity among stakeholders.



5) BIM & GIS: Taking the Environment Into Account

The next integral piece of the rail infrastructure puzzle is Geographic Information Systems or GIS.

Companies like Italy’s Italferr are using both technologies together. For example, a new tram built in Brescia, using both BIM design and GIS tools allows for two very important outcomes: the ability to monitor the entire railway and integrating that model with the infrastructure’s environment.

In railway maintenance, design and planning, the use of GIS data like geological surveys, interferometric data, and historical data regarding hydrogeological risks can help owners prevent infrastructure damages; plan preventive and corrective maintenance merging data from intelligent models and GIS information, for example.

Keeping Ahead of Transportation Changes

Transportation, especially in the railway sector, is on the cusp of change. High-speed travel at levels never before seen, population migrations, and simple supply and demand, are changing the ways in which railway infrastructure should be built, while being mindful of budgets, costs and risks. Leveraging digital technologies that allow collaboration, efficient modeling and environmental considerations will not only revolutionize the tools currently used to build railway infrastructure, but will revolutionize transportation itself.

Find more information on the future of rail design and Autodesk’s AEC Collection.

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